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By Jim Baynes of AAP

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 20, 2002 – The National)---More than 700 stolen military weapons, including mortars, machine guns and grenades, may be circulating in Wewak, East Sepik province -- the scene of a tense standoff between rebel soldiers and the Government.

In a twist to the 11-day occupation of Moem Barracks, authorities are more concerned with the amount of weapons unaccounted for, with an election just three months away, rather than the weapons in possession of the mutineers.

While the PNG Defense Force top brass expect to negotiate an end to the revolt by this weekend, they refuse to rule out the possibility of a military siege on the rebels, who are still holding seven officers hostage with their shriveled band of about 15 rebels.

A spokesman for the Member of Parliament for Wewak, Bernard Narokobi, yesterday said the only weapons accounted for so far were those strapped to the shoulders of the renegades -- leaving more than 700 in the hands of non-soldiers.

"Reliable sources in the community say those firearms are now in the community, not in the barracks," said the spokesman. "There is nothing in the barracks. The only (weapons) in the barracks are those in the hands of the renegades."

Defense Force chief of staff Captain Tom Ur said only 128 weapons were missing and said it was military policy not to reveal the size of such an armory.

Capt Ur. admitted, however, the armory and ammunition depot would have housed mortars, grenades and automatic firearms.

He said he had not heard of any of these weapons being in circulation.

"Not that I know of -- but you never know," said Capt. Ur.

Luckily anti-tank rocket launchers were no longer kept at the base, he said.

Moem Barracks is usually the home to four rifle companies, each of which contains three platoons of about 30 soldiers each, as well as a crack reconnaissance unit.

Even to have just one rifle per soldier stored in the armory it would have to have held around 400 weapons.

Police have so far caught only two people attempting to sell the stolen weapons.

The Minister's spokesman said each of these was fined around K 400 (US$ 110) -- a massive amount to the average Papua New Guinean -- suggesting the possible involvement of organized crime rings.

"You couldn't afford that sort of money -- so somebody must have paid his fine," the spokesman said.

He said Wewak residents were "living in fear" of the rebels, some of whom were wearing full combat gear with camouflage face-paint and commandeering stolen military vehicles through the town.

The rebels have given Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta until this morning to respond to their demands, which includes the scrapping of a major retrenchment scheme for the military.

Analysts say it would be disastrous for Sir Mekere to drop the reforms, upon which hinge major international loans to PNG.

In their petition to Sir Mekere the rebels have demanded not only that the Government resign, but for an end to all foreign involvement in PNG.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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